Langley – or ancient evils never die

Intro

I wrote this haunted house short story a long time ago – it might have been my first attempt at a short story!

Langley

Peggy Joint’s gnarled hand fumbled with the latch before she entered the garden of Langley Hall. Soon after, the ritual commenced. Her shrivelled lips mouthed the ancient words that she and her mother had used each year at the same spot. As she struggled with the weight of the stone, movement caught her eye.

“Someone in the hall at last. Now we’ll see.” She stared at the outline of a woman silhouetted against one of the bedroom windows.


Laura Overton stared down into the unkempt garden. “David, someone’s there. An old woman dressed in black. She’s just standing by the gate, staring at me.”

David pulled his jacket around him and shivered. “It’s just a nosy local, then. Why did your grandmother leave you this place? You haven’t seen her for years.”

“I saw her when I could. It’s not easy getting to Dartmoor from London. I seem to recall that you were always too busy with your rehearsals, whenever I suggested it.”

“You’re here now. No crowds and no pressure.  Just what the doctor ordered.”

She could see his breath cloud the air. The damp made her bones ache.

He pointed to the large rectangular outline above the marble fireplace.  “The previous occupants certainly stripped the place bare.”

“Oh, that’s where the picture of a man and woman used to hang. It used to creep me out. I wonder what happened to it. I’m glad it’s not there.”

He pulled her to him – for warmth, she suspected. “It’s funny how we remember odd details, isn’t it.”

She barely heard him. “The house feels so familiar, somehow. I can’t have been here more than once or twice.”

“Mmm.” His not-interested sound.

“David, you’re shivering – once our stuff arrives and the house heats up it’ll be really snug, you’ll see.”

He grinned. “There’s only one place we can get warm quickly, Laura. Come on, you can share my sleeping bag tonight.”

It was the first time that they had made love for some while.


The next morning, she lay in bed watching the pallid sun rise through bare branches, and listened to the silence. Her husband’s voice, berating an unfortunate member of his orchestra down the phone, destroyed the moment. She gripped the sleeping bag tightly, and willed herself to relax.

When David reappeared, Laura was standing by the window wrapped in a blanket. “I can’t leave them for a single day, Laura. They’re worse than-“

She hated the anger in his voice, and how quick he could change. “David, you promised not to do that here, remember?”

“Okay, you’re right, honey.  It’s just that we’re only two weeks away from the recording session.”

He put his arms around her, resting his chin on her shoulder, and then a silence developed as he chose the words. Taking her hand, he looked at her using his sincere face.

“Laura – look, something’s come up. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go back to London today. Will you be all right here?”

She looked at him quizzically. “I’ll have to be, won’t I? You know I’ve got an interview at Buckfastleigh library, David.”

He said with reluctance, “If you want me to stay, I can rearrange…”

“No, no. I’m happy to be alone here. I feel wanted. Don’t you feel it too?”

He shook his head. “Not really. It’s cold, and I keep cracking my head on beams.”

Over breakfast, David talked animatedly about his latest project, and how perfect Miranda was for the lead. The body of a dancer. Such a clear voice and perfect pitch. Laura would fall in love her, should she come to stay. She would be a good friend. Laura felt relieved when the Mercedes finally drove out of the gates. David’s restless energy would have soon turned to irritability.

Miranda. Laura dared not dwell on the image created by that name for a moment longer. She knew that it was only her anxiety. The same primordial force that had made her fail as a university lecturer and forced her away from the city.  Langley would help David’s composing and there was plenty of room in the house for his music studio or his colleagues, come to that. Feeling more positive, Laura donned her walking gear. She would spend the morning on the moors, exploring the old silver mines.

Fog was already beginning to fill the valley as she entered the garden, but the brown back of Holne Moor rose above it, reminding her of a surfacing whale. Gnarled fruit trees reached above the greyness and the silence pressed down. Laura felt the breath catch in her throat. A child was standing in the garden, staring at her. Laura stifled the urge to cry out. The little girl seemed unreal. Laura began to speak, but as the fog wreathed about her the child faded to an outline.

She felt sick. She dared not tell David that she was imagining things again – not after what she had put him through these last few months. Summoning her courage, Laura walked forwards, intent on challenging the illusion until she stubbed her foot painfully. She knelt, carefully parting the tangled grass stems to uncover an ancient headstone, cracked by frost. It had fallen on top of a square black rock. She pulled the headstone clear. The name and dates had been weathered away. She rolled the black stone away with some difficulty, but it revealed no more about the occupant. She shivered involuntarily as the damp wind chilled her back, before heading back the house. When a fox shrieked behind her, she ran. 

David did not call that night.

The removal van arrived the next morning. She left the two men unpacking whilst she went to her interview and when she returned, they had already taken all that she possessed inside. It seemed to make little impact on the enormous house, but now it was undoubtedly home.  Laura took some leftovers outside for the fox. Despite the hill fog, there was no mistaking the figure, standing near the grave.

“Why are you here again?” Laura faltered.

It wasn’t a child this time. The old woman walked over to Laura, and held out her crooked hand.

When Laura took it, she found herself looking into an ancient face with young eyes.

“It were you that moved the black stone.” The old woman sounded angry.

Laura was taken aback. “It’s my house and my garden. I own Langley.”

The bony hand gripped tightly. “Listen to me, girl. You are in danger. Take great care.”

Laura felt angry. “David and I can take care of ourselves…”

“Not him. No, not him at all.”

Laura freed her hand with difficulty. “I don’t want you in my garden.”

“my name be Peggy Joint. You will find me when you needs me.”

She hobbled back up the garden towards the gate, leaning heavily on a black stick. Laura followed, and watched her leave before returning to the house, the expedition forgotten. She focused on the forthcoming interview, forcing the unpleasantness from her mind.

That evening, Laura was seated beside a comforting log fire when her mobile rang.

“Hi, how did it go today?” said David’s distant voice.

“I’ve got the job –I had to go by taxi, but I think I could cycle there in future.  All our things arrived, so that just leaves twenty boxes to unpack. How about you?  When will you be home?”

An awkward pause. “Ah. Listen, I can’t come back until the weekend. I’m sorry but it’s out of my hands.”

Before she could stop the words, Laura asked, “and how’s Miranda getting along?”

Another pause. “She’s fine, Laura. I’ve invited her to Langley, so you can meet her. I’m sure you’ll become friends.”

Laura felt her skin prickle. “I’m sure we shall.”


It was Laura’s second night alone. She slept in her tracksuit, duvet pulled over her head. As sleep came she heard the cattle lowing on the moor and her fox barked close by. However, she did not sleep well and awoke from a dream, damp with sweat. Only when she was unpacking books the next day did the dream snap into focus, and it made her gasp.

She walked to the Green Man pub for lunch. Whilst the barman poured her cider, Laura caught sight of herself in the mirror over the bar, framed by two bottles of scotch. Blond hair framed wide-set green eyes, a passionate mouth veiled by humour. Maybe a worry line or two. Why should she worry about Miranda?

“New ‘ere?” The old barman held the glass he was polishing glass up to the pale light.

Laura sipped her red wine. “Yes. I’m Laura Overton. I own Langley now.”

He blew his nose noisily. “Ah. So you’re a Mortlock, are you?”

She smiled. “Yes, that’s right. I was left the house by Alice when she died.  Did you know the family?”

“I certainly knew Eden, your grandmother. She were a character all right. I can even remember her mother, Agatha, although she was quite different.”

She took another sip of the wine. “How d’you mean?”

“Nervous, like. Eden and me were at school together, in Scorriton. After John died, Agatha moved to the Scilly Isles with Eden and rented out the house.”

She absorbed the information. “Right.”

He extended his hand. “my name’s Abe Carter.”

Laura shook hands. “Why’s there a grave in the garden?”

Abe’s eyes widened. “I remembers now. That be where John Mortlock were buried. Your great grandfather, in fact. I’d forgotten all about that.”

Laura was intrigued. “You have to tell me more,” she said.

Abe laughed. “Am I teasing you? I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you much. I were just a boy at the time, and there was a lot of kids’ tales. He made his money making false teeth.”

She laughed at that. “Really?”

He nodded seriously. “Aye, for folks in London, they says.”

She wondered if he was pulling her leg. “Go on.”

“The story went that he were a bad lot. Womanising and gambling. He did something very bad, a murder – and God punished him for it. He were burned to death. I suppose that the villagers felt that he shouldn’t be buried in the family crypt after that.”

Laura remembered the woman in the fog. “Is the house haunted?” She tried to sound casual.

He looked at her seriously. “They say that a giant black hound comes down from the moor at full moon.”

Laura detected a twinkle. “I’ll remember to get you one back,” she laughed.

The image of the woman with the cruel smile haunted her as she walked back to the house. “Unpacking should keep me busy,” she muttered to herself.  Later, as she reached into the first packing case, she froze. Floorboards creaked somewhere upstairs. Feeling strangely detached, she walked to the foot of the stairs and looked up. She started to climb, her pale face damp with sweat. When she saw the swinging cord that dangled from the attic trapdoor, fear rose in her throat.

“What in God’s name are you doing?” she whispered to herself.

She reached up and pulled down the trapdoor and the retractable ladder, then went up as in a dream. It took what little courage that she possessed to look into the attic. She could see that it was empty from the faint light thrown from a small gable window. Her legs felt weak as she stood in the middle of the attic. Dense swathes of cobwebs hung around her and thick dust was underfoot. A dark rectangular shape sat in the far corner.

Laura groped her way to it, snatching cobwebs from her hair and discovered several dusty paintings covered with sacking. Instinctively, she picked one out and then something brushed past her face. She screamed then scrambled down the ladder, shaking but triumphant.

As night fell, Laura lit the log fire and settled back comfortably. She sipped her sherry and contemplated the picture above the fireplace. It had fitted perfectly into the rectangle of clean wallpaper and now the man and woman looked back at her. She wondered why it had bothered her so as a child. The couple wore dowdy Victorian clothing. She was beautiful and smiled warmly but her eyes were sad. A little girl held her hand. He stood proudly, one foot planted victoriously upon a chair, hand on hip. He had a thin mouth that turned down at the corners and he looked at the others possessively. Laura did not like him, and even as she studied his face the forgotten dream switched back on.

“Don’t hurt me, please don’t. I can’t see.” Then came the blue flash and the huge noise. it made her ears sing.

Car headlights swept the room, breaking the thread of her thoughts and the memory died. She opened the door expectantly, and David walked towards her. The slim silhouette of a girl was behind him. Laura put her arms around his neck and kissed him warmly, but she felt him pull away.

“This is Miranda.”  Miranda.

Laura took Miranda’s small, cold hand. “You’re freezing. Come in, sit by the fire.” She managed a smile.

Whilst David brought in the suitcases, Laura led the girl to the sitting room and settled her by the fire. “Let me get you a drink. What would you like?”

Miranda rubbed her small hands together. “Anything with alcohol, Laura. No, make it a brandy.”

Laura studied Miranda as she sipped the brandy, noting the dangerously sultry brown eyes, perfect skin and pearly teeth. Miranda had everything. Pert breasts pushing against her alpaca sweater, short tight skirt, slim legs, sexy boots. Laura glanced at herself. Baggy old slippers, shapeless tracksuit trousers and top, no make-up.

“Excuse me a minute, I need to smarten up.”

“No need on my behalf, Laura. You look lovely.” Liar.

Laura chose her outfit carefully, not wanting to reveal her feelings about Miranda, but acutely aware of them.

Over dinner, which Miranda did not help prepare, Laura watched her husband. She was wearing a tight-fitting outfit that fell open to reveal her thigh. Her gold hair was piled up showing the smooth curve of her neck. However, his eyes were pulled back to Miranda’s sexuality. It was as if he could smell her animal attraction. The way she stroked the stem of her glass. Catching her bottom lip in her pearly teeth when he spoke.

“How long are you staying here for, Miranda?” asked Laura. She tried to sound relaxed.

“David and I have to go back on Sunday night, don’t we?” She had the nerve to put out her hand and touch David’s cheek.

David leaned away imperceptibly. “Yes, next week’s the dress rehearsal. Why don’t you come back with us, Laura?”

Laura felt like the odd one out. “It’s my first week at work. Otherwise I’d love to. Perhaps I’ll take a day off. When is it?”

“Thursday,” David answered.


The next morning, David took Miranda on a tour of the garden whilst his wife peeled potatoes. She watched them through the kitchen window. Miranda even looked sexy in outdoor gear. Then she took David by the arm and pulled herself into him. He glanced back at the house guiltily and waved when he saw Laura watching. Laura did not wave back. She left the kitchen and went to the bedroom, but could not see them anymore. Then she looked at the grave of John Mortlock, purveyor of false teeth, and realised that he was the man in the painting. The man with a murderer’s face. For a crazy moment, Laura wondered if she had inherited a haunted house.

Later that day, Laura told David and Miranda about the grave and the painting. When they finally left for London, Laura sat alone in front of the painting, with a sense of foreboding that grew steadily worse as the evening passed. Some trick of the light made it seem as if John Mortlock was watching her. Laura became aware of her isolation, and then the rising wind moaned down the chimney like a voice. She put the fireguard in place and went to bed.

She awoke with a start. It was first light and a blackbird was singing. A vague memory was diminishing, and Laura focused on it. Part of a dream, it was the woman from the painting. What did she say? Laura could not recall. For a moment there was an image of an attractive face with worried eyes, and a feeling that she should remember something – a warning of some kind, maybe. Laura shook her head, frustrated.

She enjoyed the first day at work. The staff were friendly and made her feel welcome. Then she visited Dr Jameson.

The young Scot studied her. “Laura, sit down. You look well.”

“I wish it were true, doctor. I still feel sick all the time. I’m sure I should still take Prozac or something.”

He took her hand, kindly. “Now listen, Laura. You can’t have any more medication.”

She was given a lift back to Langley by Theresa Bailey, a trainee therapist.

“So why did you kiss Doctor Jameson? And what was it like?”

Laura laughed. “It wasn’t like that, Theresa.  I’m pregnant. It’s just perfect, isn’t it?”  It was the key to her future.

As Theresa said goodbye to Laura, she added, “It’s going to be a bad one tonight. I should oil those old shutters if I was you.”

Laura unlocked the front door, happy to be home. She went through to the kitchen, looking forward to telling David the news when he arrived back. Without warning, a bag was pulled over her head, and something was clamped over her nose and mouth. Then consciousness faded away and she fell to the floor, her last thoughts about her baby. When she came to, she felt nauseous. She tried to move her hands to protect herself, but they were tied behind her back. It was dark. Laura was inside the boot of a car. Tears came at that point – from fear, not self pity. Laura thought that she would wet herself with fear, and every nerve in her body was on fire with anticipation.

After what seemed like hours, the car stopped abruptly and her head cracked so hard on the spare wheel that she felt blood trickle down her face. Footsteps approached and when the boot was opened, the wind came in with a roar. Laura was pulled out roughly and stood unsteadily, teeth chattering as cold rain hammered onto her head.

“Who are you? What – what do you want?” she screamed into the wind.

She knew the female voice that answered. “The house. We want Langley, without you in it.”

Anger seared through her then. “Let me see you.”

Hands fumbled at her neck and then the bag was pulled off. David looked ashen but determined. Miranda licked her top lip and smiled a cruel smile.

“Look at you. You’re so boring. Especially in bed.”

“You’re crazy. David, you can’t want to do this. You love me.”

It didn’t make any sense. Laura kept thinking the same words.

The car was parked by an electricity pylon and the lip of the quarry was only a few yards away. Laura became fully aware of her predicament. The power cables sang mournfully in the wind.

“When you don’t turn up for work, they’ll try to find you but it’ll take a day or two. They’ll assume that you went for a walk, and fell,” Miranda shouted into the wind.

“You can’t do this. David, please-”

“Kneel down, Laura.”

Miranda pushed the sobbing woman to her knees as David walked back from the car, holding a tyre iron.

“David, listen to me. We’re having a baby. Please don’t hurt me,” Laura pleaded.

Miranda laughed, and held out her hand for the iron. “She’s lying to save herself. Give it to me.”

Laura stared at David. His eyes met hers and he hesitated. For a moment, Laura thought she saw someone else looking out from his eyes. He began to speak.

Laura was blinded by a blue flash so bright that it made her cry out. A dazzling arc of lightning played on top of the electricity pylon and showers of white-hot sparks cascaded around them. Even as the three watched, a power cable broke free and whipped through the air. Miranda’s head flew into the darkness of the quarry, and in the same instant the cable stabbed into David’s neck like a striking snake. He jerked convulsively and then erupted into flames.

Laura was still kneeling when Peggy found her at first light.

With Peggy’s help over the following weeks, Laura managed to recover from the trauma. She asked the old woman to live in Langley with her to help with the baby. One summer evening, when the baby had settled, she walked in the garden with the old lady. They stopped by the grave.

“Peggy, what really happened to John Mortlock?”

“Does you want to know, Laura?”

Laura nodded.

“He were an evil man, Laura. He had a mistress in London. She were called Kitty, I think. They planned to kill Agatha and Eden for the house. They took them to the quarry during a terrible storm, but John were killed by a lightning strike and Kitty were no match for Agatha. She escaped but were caught making her way back to London.”

“What happened to Kitty?” asked Laura.

“She were sent to Princeton jail and executed. Hung by the neck.”

Laura looked at the grave. “What’s the black stone for, Peggy?” The old woman tapped it with her stick. “It’s a devil stone, dear, to keep him there. You shouldn’t move a devil stone. Not never.”

The Ancient Relative – or the pursuit of perfection

Intro

I wrote the short story Ancient Relative quite some time ago now, thinking about how different from us our far future descendants might become, to cope with the world we are currently creating.

The Ancient Relative

“Rinse away, please.” 

The final patient of the day gobbed a mixture of filling, rotten tooth and spit into the silver funnel, to be whooshed away with a gurgle. Alan’s back ached after nine hours of picking, drilling and filling. His head ached from endlessly giving his new assistant the same instructions. At last he was done for the day and for the week. It was Friday – and his wife Maria was away for the weekend.

He knew that Maria Turner-Smythe was considered by some to be pushing forward the frontiers of the paranormal, and by others to be completely dotty.  A year ago, she had been elected Chairperson of WUU (Women of the Universe Unite), a radical group dedicated to linking all females regardless of the constraints of race, space or time. Since then, she had spent so much time on the Internet or at UFO conferences that Alan rarely saw her, so every cloud did indeed have a silvery lining. This weekend was a climactic event for Maria. She was to give the keynote address at the WUU Annual Conference.

…Which left him alone to play with his cactus collection. Filling tiny pots with the right mixture of soil and sand. Lovingly writing on the little labels. And best of all, sprinkling the tiny seeds on top, each with its tiny spark of miraculous life. To Alan, they were his children. The large greenhouse, originally constructed for Maria to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and other necessities was now filled with an alien landscape of cacti that resembled everything from small green hedgehogs to enormous grey-haired phalluses, and the floor was thick with sand.

The greenhouse was Alan’s home planet.

As Alan scrubbed flowerpots in the kitchen sink, his thoughts turned to his wife. He could not understand Maria’s obsession with WUU. Could it be possibly to do with him? But he was rational and in no way obsessive. She had become increasingly obsessive about the whole subject of UFOs and had been convinced by fellow WUU members that THEY were already here, controlling the media and advertising.  Maria explained to him that the only way of avoiding intergalactic warfare was for females of every intelligent race in the universe to get together and do their networking. 

Alan wondered whether he should try to get involved in WUU, so that they could share an interest.  Could men really participate in networking? Cactuses had failed as a form of communication between him and Maria. She made it very clear that she did not like extracting spines from her fingers, and the holiday to the Peruvian desert had not been a success. 

Pleasantly exhausted from another two hours of sieving and mixing soils, he sat on the patio supping a pint of beer and reading Cactus Grower’s Weekly, but at the back of his mind was a niggling thought. What could be so interesting about the possibility of life on other planets, when there were so many different types of Cactus on Earth?  If only Maria could try to understand the importance of his interests.

He sighed and went indoors. 

The kitchen could wait to the morrow. Its work surfaces were covered in the dirtiest flowerpots, destined for the dishwasher. Soil and sand seemed to be everywhere.  He smiled at the prospect of potting up his babies, then climbed the stairs wearily, a Cactus Keepers’ Annual under his arm.

As usual, he donned his striped cotton pyjamas, buttoned to the neck, pushed the lank strands of hair across his shining scalp, and of course, brushed his teeth properly for five minutes. Once in bed, he blew the dandruff from his glasses and placed them on top of the annual before snuggling under his duvet. His last thought before falling asleep was the hope that aliens might be half-human and half-cactus, thus unifying his interests with those of his wife.


At about 3 a.m., Alan awoke with a terrible pain in the chest.

His first thought was that he was having a heart attack, but he could not move his arms either. As his eyes adjusted to the light, his thinning hair tried to stand on end. There was someone sitting on him.  He worked his dry mouth and a strangled croak came out. The stranger made a dry rasping noise like a wood-boring insect. Alan could now see that it was indeed a huge insect of some kind. Very thin (but quite heavy), shiny like moulded plastic. Hairy too. The head was a smooth oval shape like a hazelnut, with a hooked mouth and bug eyes. It looked like some kind of praying mantis. Alan kicked his legs furiously until two gleaming claws waved into the air and clamped them fast. He relaxed, and to his surprise the creature nodded sagely.

Still holding him, it scuttled off the bed and then let go. Alan floated about one metre in the air, he estimated vaguely. His body started to rotate ever faster and as he span, he could see two streams of silver liquid being jetted over him from the sides of the creature’s head. Eventually he was encased in silver. Rather than being terrified, he felt drowsy and strangely relaxed.

When Alan awoke for the second time, he was sitting in what looked like his favourite armchair, but it was located in a room so big that he could not see the ceiling or the walls. There was only a silvery-white glow that faded into the distance. Nearby there was a new greenhouse of breathtaking proportions. He stood up, not noticing that his skinny body was quite naked, and walked over to it. Inside was the biggest collection of cacti he had ever seen, and at least half of the species nearby were unknown.  Te greenhouse seemed to go on endlessly. He walked through it for some time until he came to a white door. He entered and stopped in surprise.

The room was just like his lounge, complete with television and shelves filled with reference books. In front of the television sat a very old man, also naked other than his white beard, which was long enough to hide his genitals.  The old man looked up from reading an ancient cactus manual.

“Welcome, my friend. Do make yourself comfortable. Tea?”

Alan was so astonished that he sat down on the sofa, and was handed a Dresden china cup filled with an aromatic brew of Earl Grey tea.

“I know you like Earl Grey tea, Alan.”

Alan smiled. “Yes, it’s my favourite.  Now, I’m being very calm because I am a dentist, but I don’t think I can continue much longer. Who are you?”

As he spoke, his hand trembled, spilling some of the tea.

“I am Marcus Turner. My son married Wendy Smythe in 1879 thus creating the Turner-Smythe line, so you are my direct descendent, carrying the obsessive potting gene into the future.”

“Okay,” Alan said slowly, and took a sip of tea. “Go on.”

“It’s very simple, really.  The people that live in this city collected me when they were gathering cacti. They thought that I was a natural part of the greenhouse ecosystem, and I suppose I am.”

Alan started to worry. He did not want to take over as the curator of this alien collection.  “So why am I here? I mean, it’s very nice to meet you, Marcus, but…well, you’re just like me…”

Marcus shook his woolly head emphatically. “Not very interesting, you mean? You’re here for a different purpose, Alan.  You are here because you have something that they need.”

“What?”

The old man smiled. “You have cactus DNA in your body. Didn’t you know?”

Alan recalled the Sci-Fi channel. “Are they going to put something in my brain?”

“Wrong, wrong, wrong!  Alfresia will explain it to you herself. She’ll be right along any minute.”

Alan heard the scaly scratching noise again and shrank back in fear. As the door opened, long black antennae waved in the air. In the strange white light, it did not seem so horrifying.  It was about the size of a human and walked like a human, but the body was as thin as pipe cleaners and seemed to be made of a beetle-like substance, black and shiny. Its shoulders were spiny, its fingers long and thin. It walked up to Alan and held out one of its repulsive claws. Years of etiquette kicked in and he took it then gasped as his fingers were crushed and his arm pumped up and down vigorously.  Then it turned to Marcus and started to speak.

“She says, put this in your ear so you can understand what she is saying,” Marcus translated. He opened his hand and on his palm was a shiny little worm. Alan prodded it doubtfully and it curled into a defensive ball.  He counted to five and placed the worm in his ear. There was a pleasant sensation like warm eardrops, and that was all.

“Alan, can you understand me?”  The voice was distant and tinny, but definitely feminine.

“Yes.  It’s remarkable. But what the hell is going on?  I demand to be taken home immediately. You…you…,” he clenched his bony fists in rage.

“Follow me, Alan,” she replied, then hopped up and strode from the room.  He had to walk fast to keep up and did not have time to say goodbye to Marcus.  They entered another long white corridor, and then the spindly insect figure stepped into a room.

When Alan entered, his jaw dropped. It was his dental surgery, complete in almost every detail, including the faded Van Gogh print and the tropical fish.  Alfresia was waiting by the chair and had donned a white coat. Alan wandered forward in a daze and settled into the chair.  The creature leaned over him. She was wearing a surgical mask above which her huge, multi-celled eyes reflected his face a thousand times. She turned and picked up a syringe from the instrument tray.

“Wait- I’m not quite ready for this,” he babbled, and a bead of sweat ran down his face.

“Alan, I am just going to numb your mouth a little bit. I have to take a skin sample and we don’t want it to hurt.” 

Before he could stall her anymore, she injected his gum with surprising skill. “There, not so bad, was it?  Would you like to sit and read a magazine for a few minutes, whilst I prepare for the next stage?” She waved a claw at a chair.

Alan sat, naked, reading a special issue of Cactus Almanac. It contained species that he knew could not come from Earth because of their colours – blue, red and purple. A few minutes later it was time.

“Nice and numb now, Alan?”

“Mmmm.”

He settled back and Alfresia turned with a long, silver blade in her claw. The creature looked at him with her head tilted to one side, and then made a curious grating sound. She moved so quickly that he did not have time to react, and then triumphantly held up a sliver of skin, before dropping it into a small metal container. There was no blood. The implement she used seemed to cauterise as it cut.

“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it, Alan? Would you like to wash out your mouth?”

She held out a cup of purple mouthwash, and he swizzled it then spat into a silver funnel.  She handed him a paper towel.

“Can I go now?”  He was incoherent.

She removed the facemask.

“Alan, try to understand me.  Right now, we are on Earth. We are the humans of the distant future and we need your DNA for our survival. You could call us genetic engineers, modifying our race so we can survive in hostile environments.  That’s why we travel the universe, collecting other cactuses and merging their genes with ours, but it all started with you. The planet has changed a lot, you know.”

He was shocked beyond belief. “You mean…?”

She laughed. “Yes, Alan. Only you can provide us with the essential genetic material. And your wife also interests us.”

“What, you want to take Maria as well?”

Alfresia looked like she might be trying to frown. “Why are males so stupid?” she asked via the earworm. “We are a race of females. We want to join WUU. So you must tell her that we will visit again soon. Goodbye, Alan.”


Alan felt he was falling and spinning. Streaks of light whizzed past and translucent veils parted, and then he stopped. Cautiously he opened an eye and looked around.

“Holy Christ, what the hell are you doing? Look at the state of the kitchen.” Maria sounded equally annoyed and astonished.

He was still stark naked, lying on his back on the cushion linoleum floor, and a small worm had just dropped from his ear.

“Maria, thank God it’s you. Thank God.”   Alan sobbed with relief.

She looked at him. “Honestly, Alan, you really need to get out more. Why don’t you look up an ancient relative?”

Meteorite – short story about a life-changing experience

The short story Meteorite was written for a competition rather a long time ago, and did quite well although I lost the certificate. it’s a tribute to the famous movie the Body Snatchers.

Meteorite

Max looked at the clouds anxiously.

“Typical.” 

Only an hour ago, he had painstakingly pegged quantities of voluminous underwear and bedding onto the washing line in his manicured back garden. Now they would all have to be draped around the inside of the small terraced house, making it untidy. Sighing at life’s hardships, he paused the rail-travel DVD he had been watching, heaved his vast bulk from the armchair and waddled into the garden.

Max lived a solitary fussy life, deriving secret satisfaction from his numerous obsessions, the best of which was cleanliness. The only person he would allow into the house was his twin brother Thomas because he shared many of the same afflictions. Thomas was coming round later that same day and staying for supper. Max knew that he would comment on the laundry drying in the house. He carefully took down and rolled up each pair of socks from the line and placed them in a black bin-liner but when he came to the first of the sheets, he stopped.

“That’s odd. That’s very odd.”

Two round holes had been burnt neatly through the sheet. He peered through one at the tidy house, and made a mental note that the curtains had not been drawn back evenly. Then he noticed that the two holes in the sheet were identical in size, and perfectly round, slightly black around the edge.  They had been burnt. He walked around to the back of the washing line, which was a large rotating frame on a pole. The duvet cover also had two holes burned through it, but these were lower down. Max walked back to the sheet and then lined up the uppermost hole in the sheet with the corresponding one in the duvet. Through the two holes he could see the perfectly mown grass. And something else.

When Max’s twin brother Thomas arrived, Max opened the door in a state of wild excitement. “Thomas, come into the garden. It’s like… a dream come true.”

Thomas followed Max’s equally rotund form through the house to find him waiting next to the washing line with legs and arms spread wide.

“Don’t come any closer,” he said. “They might be dangerous.”

Thomas stopped next to him. “I can’t see anything. What do you mean?” He screwed up his fat face and peered about.

Max pushed the glasses back up his button nose. “Look at the grass, and tell me what you can see.”

Thomas looked. “Rocks?” He sounded disappointed at the anticlimax.

Max laughed delightedly and a little crazily. “I’ll give you a clue. Look at the washing.”

Thomas showed signs of frustration. His nose twitched irritably. “Something has burned holes in the washing. Hot rocks. Where could they have come from? Volcanoes?  Too far away from England, never mind Woking. Good God, they must be…Meteorites.”

Max had hoped to be able to tell him. “Of course they are, Thomas,” he said condescendingly.

The meteorites resembled lumps of coal half-buried in the lawn. Max pulled on his yellow kitchen gloves and knelt down on a newspaper.

“Careful, Max.” 

They had both read the same sci-fi stories as children – meteorites that emitted strange green light bringing dire consequences, or alien bacteria that could change people into vegetables while they slept. Even so, Max prised the rocks out of the soil with a trowel and dropped them into a salad bowl before carrying them proudly into the kitchen. In a moment of generosity he handed Thomas the magnifying glass. “You look first,” he said.

Thomas bent over the rocks. “Mmm,” he mouthed. He moved the glass around and looked up.

“Well?”

Thomas blinked through his thick glasses. “They’re black, with bits of blue. They look like… well, they’re just rocks.”

“Just? Just? What do you mean, just?” Max hated that word. It was so weak.

He snatched the magnifying glass back, but after a while he had to agree. “Well, they are rocks, but there’s a lot more to it than that, Thomas. These are history-making. They must be three or four billion years old, for a start.”

Reverently, he placed the bowl containing the meteorites on the window ledge before preparing lunch, which took them a long time to eat.  They spent an excellent afternoon together researching meteorites on the Internet, joining discussion groups with others around the world who had similar luck. Finally, it was time for Thomas to leave and Max was getting anxious to do his ironing.  At the door, Thomas lingered until Max realised what was going on.

“I don’t think you can have one, Thomas. They are part of the –” he paused, searching for an excuse, “scientific record.”

Max knew he had upset his brother. He watched him waddle down the front path, a lonely bear-like shape in the dusk. Then he locked the front door, and rushed to the kitchen to study the meteorites.

“Oh no. No, no,” he gasped. Thomas.  There was only one rock in the bowl now. Max lowered himself wearily into the chair, the bowl on his lap, and looked at the remaining rock, puzzled. Was it bigger than it had been? A reckless sensation took control and he watched detachedly as one of his plump fingers moved towards the rock and pushed it. The rock felt warm and slightly yielding. Gaining confidence, Max watched his hand enclose the rock and then he was looking at it resting in his plump palm.

“So, Thomas didn’t take one. They must have joined together,” he muttered. “Hmm. Perhaps I can see the join.” Then he sat up. “That’s strange.”

The rock looked different. Before, it had looked like a lump of coal, but now he could see that the surface was covered in tiny pits. It was a more pleasing shape, too. When he stroked its surface, the rock definitely felt faintly squishy. A small voice deep in his brain was begging him to put the rock down. With a huge effort of will he eventually did so, and mopped his florid face. When he checked the time he was shocked. It was 2 a.m.


The next morning, Max called his brother. “It’s Max. Look, did you come round here this morning?”

“No, you just woke me up.”

Silence followed until finally Max said, “It’s gone. Both of them have gone.”

“What? What are you talking about, Max? I’ll come round, okay?”

Max was waiting for him. “After you left there was only one meteorite in the bowl, and now there are none.”

Thomas sounded unsure if he was being accused. “I haven’t been back to your house. I wanted to have one of the rocks but you said they were part of the scientific record, remember?”

“If you didn’t take it, Thomas, then where is it?”

“What do you think, Max?”

Max shook his head. “How should I know? Maybe they joined together somehow. I’ve got no idea, alright?”  He was close to tears.

The brothers decided to search the house. Max puffed up the stairs. He had not been upstairs for some while, as he slept on the ground floor and he found the physical effort too much. He searched the bedrooms first. They were mostly filled with piles of dusty, unopened Internet purchases and little else. Then he approached the bathroom and saw that the door was slightly ajar. He pushed it open and looked in cautiously. The room had no window and was dark. He reached up with some difficulty and pulled the light cord. There was a click, but nothing else happened. Peering into the gloom, Max had the feeling that something was not right. Where the toilet bowl should be, there was something bigger. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness he could make out the shape of a person sitting on the toilet.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

He listened. At first there was no sound, then after a moment, he distinctly heard breathing, and saw slight movement. Then a faint green light began to grow around the toilet. Max stood and stared, too scared to move. Now he could definitely make out the body of a person, but it was not sitting on the toilet as he had first thought. It seemed to be growing out of the bowl, like a plant in a pot. The lower half was a ridged green column, similar to a cucumber, which then merged into what resembled a human torso, albeit a green and spiny one. The figure had rudimentary arms and a stub of a head with a slit which pursed out as it breathed.

Even as he watched, the slit trembled. Two dimples started to pucker inwards above it where eyes should be. Max felt a dull pain in his chest and realised he had not exhaled for some time. He finally did so, noisily. Immediately, the cucumber-thing shivered and the stubby head moved in his direction. Max fled from the room and locked the door behind him, then went down the stairs as fast as he dared.

“Thomas, I…” Words failed to form.

His brother looked at him with alarm. “What on earth’s the matter?”

“Oh, Thomas. There’s something awful upstairs. Something is growing out of the toilet. I’m sure it’s the meteorite.”

“Wait here whilst I go and look,” Thomas said. He gave Max a glass of water and then climbed the stairs.

Max could hear the steps creak, complainingly under the weight.  He heard the bathroom door open and he strained to listen. He was sure he could hear a voice. Thomas must be talking to it. For a moment, he thought he could hear a second voice that rasped unpleasantly, but then the door closed. He sat and waited, heart thumping in his ears. It was a while before he heard the creak of the stairs once more. Thomas was coming down them surprisingly quickly, and he did not say a word to Max, but left the house immediately.

Wondering what could have happened, Max laboriously climbed the stairs a second time, once more peering into the bathroom. Now, he could see that there was nothing in the toilet bowl, but on the floor lay something like a mucous coated fur-ball. But this particular fur-ball would fill a suitcase and an unpleasant, sweet smell made him choke. Starting to feel queasy, Max shut the bathroom door once more. With an awful sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he returned to the living room and sat down, wondering what to do. One thing was clear, the bathroom would need a clean.


The next morning, Thomas opened the door, and looked surprised. “Hello,” he said.

Max was nonplussed. “Er, hello, Thomas.”

“Thomas. That’s right,” Thomas murmured, and then he said “Come in.”

Max entered the house, peering about suspiciously. Thomas had returned to his chair where he had been reading. Max was shocked to see that it was a men’s magazine with a scantily-clad female on the cover. He looked around. His brother had been busy reorganising the room. His collections of books about trains and Victorian kitchens were piled up by the back door. The curtains were open so that sunlight flooded into the drab room. On the wall, Thomas had been testing different shades of paint.

“What’s going on?” Max demanded.

Thomas smiled. “Which colour do you like the best? I like the cream myself. Look, there are real floorboards under this green carpet. They’ll polish up nicely. I can expose the fireplace as well. Lovely old bricks.”

Max examined his brother. Thomas seemed taller and slimmer. There was something else – he was not wearing his glasses. Thomas always wore glasses.

Thomas read his thoughts. “Contact lenses, Max. You should try them. Now, what’s the problem?”

Max remembered why he’d come. “There was something revolting on the bathroom floor – I nearly threw up when I cleared the room up. You were there last one in there. What happened when you went in?”

Thomas shook his head sadly. “Max, listen to me. There was nothing in the room.”

Max felt annoyed. “There was. You were talking to it. You were there for ages.”

“I needed the toilet, I can’t help how long it takes. I always talk to myself when I’m on the toilet.”

“All right, explain the fur-ball thing.”

“Probably something that died. Maybe a cat got in the house.”

“It was too big. Besides, you said there was nothing in the room. Didn’t you see a fur-ball?”

Thomas said not. Max felt deflated. He went back to his own house with Thomas, who bounded up the stairs. Max puffed behind him. When he got to the bathroom, Thomas was standing in the centre of the room, licking his lips and fingers.

“The room was just like it is now. Nothing happened.”

Thomas seemed to have forgotten all about the existence of the meteorites.  Max was a little frightened by his brother.


Over the next two months, Thomas changed. To start with, Max was startled to see his brother jogging past the house, wearing a vast red track suit. Thomas jogged further and faster every day and the weight seemed to fall away. Compared to Max he seemed so energetic. He ate all the time and he read book after book. Most surprising of all, were the women. When Max phoned to invite Thomas round, Thomas said that he was too busy. But when Max walked round to his brother’s house he could hear what was going on inside quite clearly.

Max was not stupid. He had watched the ‘Body Snatchers’ film. He was now certain that the giant fur-ball on the bathroom floor had been the real Thomas when the cucumber-man took his place. Now the cucumber-man was living it up, enjoying Thomas’s life to the full. He was reading men’s magazines in his trendy terraced pied-a-terre with its pine floors and minimalist decorations, enjoying the company of attractive young ladies or hanging out at the fitness centre. His faded brown Morris Minor had been replaced by some ridiculous sports car. It was embarrassing. It was evil and embarrassing. No, not embarrassing. Evil and Annoying. Not evil, exactly.

It was unfair.

Max walked home, lost in thought. Unfair. The word had shaken him to the core. As soon as he arrived, he started to search for the meteorite. He looked everywhere. He was beginning to despair when at last he found it, jammed deep down the back of the cupboard in the kitchen, as if it had been trying to burrow its way out. Max pulled the meteorite out of its prison, feeling the warmth and softness. He could feel life. As quickly as he could, he stumped up the stairs for the very last time and dropped the rock into the toilet bowl. Then he sat down on the floor, and waited for his cucumber-man to grow.